Catastrophic climate change is the primary preventable threat to the health and well-being of all Americans — as readers of this blog already understand and as pretty much everyone else will figure out in the coming years. Keeping total planetary warming as low as possible — ideally below 2°C, which it turn requires keeping atmospheric concentrations of CO2 below 450 ppm — will become the central organizing principle for all US energy, environmental, economic, and international policy over the next two decades, and will almost certainly remain so for the next two centuries.
While this is a long-term problem, “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment,” as IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri warned last fall. Beating 450 ppm is certainly not politically possible now, as I have argued in a long ongoing series (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 2: The Solution” for all the links). Indeed, the recent climate debate in the Senate makes it painfully clear that conservatives are prepared to go down with the climate ship (see “Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us“). The current oil drilling ‘debate’ only underscores how hopeless the climate situation is until progressives occupy the White House (see “Will the GOP’s cynical lies destroy the chance for serious energy and climate policy?”
That said, the next president is almost certainly going to pass some sort of climate legislation establishing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions that kicks in around 2015. Again, it won’t be easy to pass a serious bill, but if we had a president who was capable of truly inspiring people and who actually believes in government-led clean energy policies, then I think it will happen.
But — and this is where Biden comes in — even if that legislation is strong enough to put this country on the path towards rapid and deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the entire U.S. effort will certainly fall apart if the next president is not able to negotiate a serious international treaty that encompasses all major emitters. Yet it has become increasingly clear in recent months that achieving a serious, binding international treaty is even more politically implausible a task than passing serious, binding domestic legislation. And that is because Russia has emerged as a country that is likely to be every bit as much an obstacle as China and the United States currently are.